By: Dani Kessel
[Trigger Warning: This article will discuss misogyny, murder, gun violence, incel culture, and sexual violence.]
Bianca Devins, a 17-year-old young woman with plans of attending Mohawk Valley Community College, was brutally murdered and beheaded last year by a supposed-friend who she romantically rejected. She attempted to clarify with him, once and for all, that they were just friends. She asserted her right to autonomy. He retaliated and removed her freedom to say “no.”
This violation is chilling, but it’s not unfamiliar to most women, femme individuals, and AFAB folks. We’re often taught in our youth to say “no” to things we don’t want, especially when it comes to sex and love.** But, we discover that saying “no” is not as simple as it sounds. We’re labeled bitches and bossy for asserting ourselves. We see incel rape threats on social media websites. We wonder if we are going to be next any time we see a story like Bianca’s.
With the rampancy of rejection violence, the idea of saying “no” to someone’s romantic and sexual advances becomes much more daunting.
Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, wrote in his journal a list of young women who should die because they rejected him. He also wrote that getting laid could prevent the planned attack. Elliot Rodger wrote a 140-page manifesto about his bitterness at being an incel and his jealousy and anger at people with better sex lives than him; then, he went on to perpetrate the 2014 Isla Vista Massacre. Alek Minassian posted about the “incel revolution” starting before plowing a cargo van into a Toronto crowd. Scott Beirle uploaded multiple videos and songs with hateful ideals and calls for violence against women before driving 250 miles to shoot up the Tallahassee Hot Yoga studio. (He wasn’t just predisposition to murdering women. Previously, he’d assaulted a woman after she’d declined his help putting on suntan lotion.)
There’s a clear link between toxic masculinity, hatred of women, entitlement, and violence when it comes to these men.
But, rejection violence also occurs on an individual level. Bianca Devins, Tamara O’Neal, Aisha Fraser, Tiarah Poyua, Mollie Tibbets, Mia Green, Sherry Cheung, Sandra Berfield, Nusrat Jahan Rafi, Marcine Herinck, Lisa Trubnikova, and Mary Jane Jones each experienced personal rejection violence and/or murder. Those are just a few names. Sadly, there are so many incidents that I can’t even come close to listing them all. Hundreds of stories of revenge violence are documented on the When Women Refuse blog. A thesis entitled “The Danger of ‘no’: Rejection Violence, Toxic Masculinity And Violence Against Women,” written by Lily Katherine Thacker, MS, also analyzes over 50 incidents between 2013 and 2019.
We can see from all of these examples, the issue of revenge killings against women who say “no” is ongoing and extremely prevalent.
So where does this leave us?
On a government level, we need to start some form of tracking for rejection violence/killings. Most of what we hear about this type of crime is through firsthand accounts and social media posts. Rejection violence isn’t properly tracked by almost any governmental system. Sadly, the reality is, even though we have hundreds upon hundreds of stories about these situations, we don’t actually know how prevalent it is. There isn’t much in the way of reliable studies or analyses on the subject except for a few theses and dissertations.
On a social level, we need to start teaching our sons, brothers, cousins, nephews, neighbors that they are not entitled to anyone else’s body. They are not entitled to sex or romance or love just because they like somebody and are a “nice guy.” We need to completely dismantle the idea of the friend zone. It’s toxic to think that just because someone is nice to you that they deserve to be with you. If your friendship comes with expectations of dating or sex, it isn’t that real of friendship, is it? We all need to start respecting each other’s boundaries.
Also, learning consent must start young. We need to stop forcing children to give others hugs and kisses. We need to ask them before we touch them in any way (unless it is a matter of safety). Ask if you can hug them or kiss them, then, and this is the crucial part, RESPECT THEIR ANSWER. Ask if you can borrow something that is theirs instead of just taking it. In your own actions, make sure that they understand they are safe to say “no” in your household.
On an introspective level, you need to reflect on your choices and emotions in these scenarios. If you are in the position of being pursued, give yourself compassion for being afraid. There are legitimate safety reasons to worry about saying “no.” If you need to give out a fake phone number because a creepy man won’t leave you alone, do it. If you need a friend to pretend to be your partner, do it. If you have to make up a spouse to get a person to back off, do it. If a person you turned down is following you home and you feel safe going to the police, do it. Your safety matters. Make the choices that protect you. If you are in the position of pursuing, think about how your actions either promote or take away the safety of the person you’re interested in. If you ask someone out and they turn you down without giving a reason, don’t call them derogatory names. Just say okay and walk away. If they give you a phone number, don’t be that person who calls the phone number while sitting next to the person to “make sure it’s real.” If you ask your date to come inside at the end of the night and they say “no,” respect that and drop it. Choose the actions which respect others’ autonomy.
Truthfully, there have been very few times when I felt safe saying “no” to a romantic or sexual proposition without some bogus excuse.
(The exception to this being anything with my partner. We’re both really good about asking for consent and allowing the other person to say “no” or “stop” or back out of a situation when they are uncomfortable. I’m lucky in that regard.)
I don’t know that the feeling will ever change. There have been too many instances of my autonomy being violated by strangers who thought they were entitled to something from me. I’ve been in the situation of rejecting someone and having violence threatened against me. I’ve been in the position of someone touching my body without consent. My fear will likely persist for the rest of my life.
My biggest hope though, in the end, is that my kiddos grow up in a safer, more caring world–one where they’ll know that their thoughts, choices, desires, and autonomy matters. I hope they’ll know that they are the only ones in charge of their body. I hope they’ll be spared degrading catcalls and come-ons. And, most of all, I hope that they’ll never fear the repercussions of saying “no.”
[Note: Typically, I hyperlink to sources. Out of respect for the victims, this article lacked hyperlinks when it came to videos and manifestos of murderers. I have no desire to share their hateful declarations. I wouldn’t ever wish to diminish the memory of the people who lost their lives. I hope you understand why I made that change for this specific topic.]
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**I was made aware after writing this that many folks who grew up in a religious background, especially when subjected to feminine behavioral expectations, were not actually taught to say “no.” They weren’t taught about consent and autonomy in the way they should’ve been. This puts these individuals in an even more difficult position when it comes to saying “no” to anything in the romance or sex department.